During my recent trip to the States I went to see English immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s American début ‘Sleep No More’. Having been told by various sources over the years to check them out as the performances were amazing, and the company’s use of space and set design was always unbelievable, I took it upon myself to get tickets for their show in New York.
Punchdrunk is not your "normal" theatre company; founded in 2000, they create experiences rather than performances, filling abandoned buildings with mazes, ballrooms and graveyards so intricate and realistic that you can barely believe you’re still inside. Being a part of the audience in one of their immersive pieces is as close to being a ghost as you will ever be. You can roam to your heart’s content, and you will never get to visit all of the rooms in one night, meaning the more times you go, the more you will experience.
‘Sleep No More’ is based on Macbeth – something I saw very recently at the Trafalgar Studios in London. Having the story fresh in my mind did help me understand their imaginative take on the classic, but I could have gone without knowing anything about Macbeth and still enjoyed myself.
At the entrance to the secret location (in the Lower West Side of New York City), in this case the recreation of a 1930’s New York hotel called the McKittrick, we were asked to leave all of our ‘luggage’, including vintage leather satchels(!), at the front desk (hence ‘No Bags Allowed!’), and were then each given a ‘room key’ - namely a playing card from a pack. Intrigued, we followed directions until we were given white, featureless masks, instructed to keep them on and remain silent at all times and sent through an intricate maze with absolutely no lighting whatsoever. We stumbled through the darkness into a 1930’s drinking/music club, with an empty stage and a busy bar. Absinthe shots were passed around, and then we were led, ten at a time, into a dimly lit lift (which they of course insisted on calling an "elevator") which stopped at each of the four floors, with a few people exiting each time, not necessarily with the people they had arrived with. Before anybody was allowed to leave, we were told that the next three hours were “a wholly individual experience”, so not to follow our friends or talk once we were let loose in the 60 different rooms they had in store for us.
I won’t ruin anything by writing what happens once you enter the rooms, apart from saying that I went from a windy cemetery to a doctor’s office, to a forest and then ended up in a hospital ward. We were an invisible audience piecing together the story of the performers around us; we were ignored in one room yet in the next we were serenaded, and then suddenly people from the audience were invited to dance and gamble with the cast. And the experience didn’t stop once we re-entered the bar: a live band were performing (the stage has previously held many musicians from P!nk to the Police drummer Stewart Copeland) while we discussed the rooms we had seen, and more importantly, what we had missed.
As I’m sure you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I can’t wait for my next dose of intriguing and dramatic adventure when they return to London with their largest show ever. They have just launched a totally new show called "The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable" which, as you can imagine, I highly recommend you try to get tickets for!
And don’t just take my word for it, have a look at all the comments left in the McKittrick Hotel Guestbook – there are even a few famous names!
Do enjoy your visit and remember - there really are absolutely "No bags allowed"!